THERE is one thing that Russia, with its crumbling schools, rampant poverty, AIDS, alcoholism and million-plus street children needs above anything else - apparently. You guessed it: a new palace.
Russia’s government is so cash-strapped that some ministries have stopped paying their staff, but 120 million has still been found to restore the Konstantinovsky Palace outside St Petersburg.
The 18th century palace will be the summer retreat for the president, Vladimir Putin, and the Kremlin is not doing things by halves.
A brand new jetty is being built so that Mr Putin can arrive from the Gulf of Finland on his personal yacht and the palace’s network of canals will allow him to cruise through the grounds, admiring the fountains and ornamental gardens.
Inside, the 1,000 rooms are being returned to their imperial splendour, and on the roof a massive glass cupola is being constructed to give an orchestra a place to play.
Around the back, a terrace the size of a football field is being built for those little get-togethers, and 20 20-room mansions are being built in the ground to house foreign dignitaries - and the super-rich.
Mr Putin will use the palace - left a ruin when it was sacked by German troops in the Second World War - as his personal residence during the summer. Workers are now scrambling to get it ready for St Petersburg’s 300th birthday celebrations next year. But the palace is arousing controversy, with many Russians thinking that there are plenty of other things you could do with 120 million,
St Petersburg itself is mired in great poverty. Tucked away behind the splendour of its architecture are grim blocks of communal flats, where several families must share a single kitchen and bathroom. And the city is decaying fast: a list of 130 most affected monuments - everything from churches to statues - has been drawn up by city fathers desperate to find foreign sponsorship before they collapse.
The entire list could be restored for the price of the Konstantinovsky palace.
The price tag also neatly dovetails with the money the Bolshoi ballet needs, but cannot find, to save its own theatre, now in an advanced state of decay.
"Our city has very many problems - we can live without this palace," said Yuri Fidolvin of human rights group Citizen’s Watch. "I live in a communal apartment. Come and look at it. This palace, it’s not necessary, it’s a centre for the presentation of power."
The Kremlin insists that the whole project is being financed by private money, but some have smelled a rat because many of these sponsors are in fact government-controlled firms, including the gas giant Gazprom, whose boss was appointed by Mr Putin.
But not all Russians are opposed to the Konstantinovsky project. "It is an extremely good thing," said Dunya Smirnova, a famous St Petersburg screenwriter and broadcaster. "This will contribute a lot to St Petersburg. Probably after they have fixed this palace, other buildings will follow."